So Ezra Klein has finally launched his new media venture Vox, a glossy news website that looks intent on melding the progressive punditry of his former Wonkblog with the snazzy interface of a Slate Explainer, replete with “flash cards” and helpul FAQs for those of us who find it useful when consuming news to also have said news “explained” to us by a bunch of arrogant leftists offering to guide us through the muck of the modern news cycle.
I actually like Ezra Klein, not because of anything he says or believes politically, but because he is a talented and ambitious entrepreneur who has successfully built and cultivated his own personal and unique brand among the morass of Washington “journalists.” That the brand portrays him as a sophisticated wonk when in reality Klein is merely a banal partisan steeped in the dark arts of linguistic obfuscation and manipulative data mining is beside the point. Don’t hate the player, hate the game. Klein is exceedingly skilled at the game, which is why his foray into these hitherto uncharted waters known as “explaining the news” has caused much gnashing of teeth and rending of garments across the media landscape.
For a guy who believes (on faith, mind you) that an increase in the minimum wage is good for the poor, that “capital injections” stimulate economies because the Keynesian models say so, or that government’s “consumer protections” outweigh the negatives of market distortion, Klein has shown that while he may not have the slightest clue about capitalism writ large, he is a black belt capitalist when it comes to his personal career. Most successful people will tell you that timing is either everything, or at least very important. When Jeff Bezos bought the Washington Post last year, Ezra Klein was arguably among the paper’s top assets. His popularity and easy demeanor allowed him to leverage his already-large profile into his own, independent organization. The timing was perfect, but it was also largely of Klein’s own making. The ability to drive traffic and command attention in the modern media landscape is simultaneously the easiest and hardest thing to do well for today’s self-promoting pundit. Klein managed his successful Wonkblog and twitter feed by cultivating a credible, likable, just-the-facts-ma’am presence that served to masque his ideological fervor. Still, no one on the left or right is confused as to Klein’s affiliation: he is a dedicated, down-for-the-cause true progressive believer, which helps explain much of the angst over Vox.
Conservatives are alarmed at the creation by a committed leftist ideologue of an entire new medium of news, one that purports to “explain” it all to the casual, the busy, and the ADDled. His debut contribution, which reads like a Vox mission statement, confirms the worst of these fears. Here is this non-threatening twenty-something with smart glasses and gigs on all the trendy MSNBC shows telling his audience how “politics makes us stupid” not because we lack crucial information, but because we have too much of it. “Cutting-edge research shows that the more information partisans get, the deeper their disagreements become,” says Klein. David Harsanyi at The Federalist takes great exception with Klein’s notion that were it not for the abundance of unfiltered data lingering in the ether, politicians and voters alike would be able to avoid the constant contretemps that define our supposedly “dysfunctional” government. Harsanyi seizes on the absurdity of Klein’s inference that politics would run smoother and with less gridlock if only the chaos of information could be corralled and packaged into easily digested sound bytes, and takes Klein to task for justifying presenting the news in this way as a means for alleviating the misunderstandings that arise between us due to the chaos and confusion of unfiltered information:
Vox may be here to teach us a thing or two, but the fear of us “misunderstanding” each other is no more an underlying theory of American politics than it is “coursing” through the text of the Constitution. The idea that we can stop “fighting” doesn’t sit “hopefully” at the base of our national debate; it exists in the disagreeable imaginations of technocrats. Because “fighting” – or what people commonly refer to as “debating” — is driven by regional, historical, religious, cultural, philosophical, personal, and generational disagreements. Diversity. The Founders created checks on the state because they understood that some of these disagreements would be intractable, and we only exacerbate the “fighting” with coercive centralized government.
But Ezra is here to stop us from fighting with each other because he has access to “cutting edge research” that will clear everything right up (because his research always seems to confirm progressive sensibilities) whereas we conservatives are hopelessly wedded to our echo chamber and, lacking as it is in any recognized “cutting edge research,” we are left to wallow in confusion and despair, for want of anything even halfway enlightened as Vox to explain to our fellow lizard brains just what it is the news actually means. It’s as if Klein and his cohort are so consumed by confirmation bias that they assume everybody operates this way; that we all must forever be on the hunt for anecdotes and data that only confirm our worldviews while our wise and enlightened betters toil in the web weeds to bring us the kind of news humans have sought since Gutenberg. This is how they actually think. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.
As much as Klein has caught flak from the right for substantive concerns over what Vox’ role might be in an evolving media landscape, the left has trained their (f)ire on Vox for petty personnel reasons. Put simply, they don’t like some of Klein’s hires because some of Klein’s hires don’t kowtow to progressive orthodoxy. Brandon Ambrosino, a gay writer who attended Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University and takes the socially conservative skeptical stance towards marriage equality, has been the subject of repeated attacks from the left solely on the basis of his against-the-grain opinion on homosexuality. But it wasn’t just the hires that invited the left’s rage, it was who wasn’t hired too. Ezra had to answer to the PC police who didn’t like the racial configuration of his new organization. Not enough diversity, obviously! Since the left is wholly consumed by race “in the twenty-first century” (to steal one of their most inane and meaningless phrases), Klein had to suffer widespread indignation from his ideological allies because they didn’t like the physical make-up of his staff. Perhaps the most infuriating aspect of today’s left is its self-congratulatory stand for “diversity” when the truth is they are only interested in the superficial diversities of skin, gender and sexuality, because actual diversity – of thought – is the last thing they want. The left wants cultural and ideological conformity, and Ezra Klein intends to facilitate just that with his new venture that is going to “explain” the news to the masses so they can better comprehend the glories of a progressive policy agenda.
And that sounds wonderful to the left, just so long as it’s not a bunch of straight white males doing the noble business of collectivist agitprop; that is a job anyone can do. I believe Ezra Klein is a decent guy who genuinely believes that good outcomes will materialize with progressive policies and expansive, managerial government secured. I think he’s short-sighted, living in a bubble, and criminally negligent on understanding the free market or its incentives and individual preferences. But I don’t hold these ignorant views against him, per se. Lots of confused progressives believe what Klein believes. What scares me about Vox isn’t the content so much as the premise behind it: that a tidier, quicker, here’s-the-context delivery of news is meeting a broad demand in the information market. It’s not. Contrary to popular belief, held by both conservatives and liberals, voters are not ciphers in need of being spoon-fed important news; in fact, most individuals are quite capable of sorting wheat from chaff in this complex world of ubiquitous information, and they are even more capable of making up their own minds. The problem in politics is not too much information that nobody knows what to do with. The problem in politics is parties and partisans bending over backwards to mold and shape (I would say “distort”) the news of the day to fit preconceived narratives. Klein appears to believe that a vast market exists for a sleek, condensed site that presents its news in ways equivalent to the “previously on” segments of prestige cable dramas. So let’s get to those sexy flash cards! Forward!